The Last Days of the Round Reading Room at the British Museum and the British Library - and a Pleasant Encounter

The Angel of Torun (by Aneta Barnett)
I have such fond memories of the old Round Reading Room at the British Museum. Two of my books on travelling in the seductive South Pacific were completed in that inspiring space, the blue dome arching above one like the southern sky, the blue leather seats worn soft and comfortable by generations of researchers, the leather folding reading frames above each desk illuminated by a green shaded lamp with brass fittings. Leather-bound volumes lined the higher reaches of the walls with gilt-lettered spines protected by gilded mesh screens. A rare perfume of scholasticism hovered about the place. The room possessed a singularly English character and style, something fast disappearing today, undefended.  Many great writers wrote great works of literature under this papier-mache covered dome, the phantoms of their minds seemingly imprinted forever on the air. 

Books were ordered by filling out small slips of paper in duplicate by hand, outlining one's requirements and desk number. I collected them for my bibliographies and have them still tied in bundles in a trunk in the attic. Then a short wait ensued for the delivery. Whispered advice could be obtained from selfless assistants who possessed a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of 'the stacks'. It  was all terribly personal and cosy, even intimate in its reverential silence. Serious registered reseachers used the library in those days, an elite in many ways. Just the possession of a Reader's Card was an intellectual honour in itself at the time, a sign of being engaged on some 'great endeavour'.

The ghostly movement of silent beings drifting across the room wrapt in the intellectual demands of their arcane subject always fascinated me. The gentleman's club atmosphere and hidden alcoves enabled the forbidden, the tachycardia of the illicit and the rendevous (I am told) of many affairs of the heart. I was there on the  last day in 1997 and we all drank champagne and shed a few tears. A most moving occasion.

The new British Library is of course an astonishing facility, one of the great world libraries. However, like much in current life the enormous pressure of contemporary scholastic demands has caused it to evolve into a supremely technological machine and it has necessarily lost the monastic feel of a place frequented by  'the sacred seekers after knowledge', an aura I infallibly experienced every day in the hushed atmosphere of the old Round Reading Room. After all I spent some of the best years of my youth there...

The British Library today is a very different place. These days whenever I need to renew my British Library Reader Pass the procedure has changed and is becoming increasingly technologically automated. This is not surprising as I only need to renew it every few years and the number of 'registered users' of far wider persuasions has increased enormously and we are assured 'democratically'. Scholarly privacy has evolved into a brisk competition for seats. Staff are increasingly pressured and may even resort to unprecedented strike action over conditions and pay. However under these more stressful conditions they remain as helpful, charming and friendly as ever they were. But we talked of the past.

Now as I age and Hercule Poirot's 'little grey cells' increasingly flicker out, I stand bemused 'with bicycle clips in hand' before an illuminated screen displaying many options of ambiguous semantic meaning. Recently during a research visit to London I was afflicted by this state of paralysis when an official angel of mercy miraculously appeared at my side to assist. She was Polish.

The entire world knows thousands of Poles have moved to the United Kingdom and she had overheard me mention to her colleague at the renewal room information desk that I lived in Warsaw. The computerised procedure  became a charming encounter rather than a trial. As I tapped away we spoke of course of Poland and my decision to live in Warsaw a few years ago, considered by the clearly uninformed as a highly eccentric move from Marylebone in Central London where I had lived for thirty years. It is a miracle that Warszawa - so lovely in the leafy summer or in deep winter under snow - exists at all given its tumultuous and tragic history. In an odd way I feel it is a spiritual privilege to be living here although I do have my brief moments of despair. I made my usual joke that I was the person the authorities had exchanged for a million Poles. 

Like many young Poles, Aneta is quite entrepreneurial and has other arrows in her quiver besides registering new pass holders at the British Library. She is a keen photographer and has set up a wedding and portrait studio. She was keen to read my book on Poland and like me believes many more people should see pictures of this beautiful, relatively unknown country. I promised to present some of her outstanding pictures of the fascinating city of Torun on the Vistula River, the birthplace in 1473 of the polymath astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, author of the seminal work on astronomy De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.

Pictures of Torun by Aneta Barnett are available at:

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